Teaching and learning from preschoolers
Thursday, March 04, 2021
Despite My Utter Lack of "Teaching"
I never pretend to know what kids will learn on any given day and, honestly, any teacher who does is either deluded or blowing smoke. No one can possibly know what another person is going to learn. You can hope. You can plan. You can lecture yourself blue. You can even, if you're especially clever, trick someone into learning something, but the idea that one person can "teach" something to another, except under narrow circumstances, is one of the great educational myths.
There is a quote that is most often attributed to the Buddha, but is more likely of Theosophical origins, that goes: "When the student is ready the master will appear." I like these kinds of quotes that persist because they are true even when they can't be traced back to the utterances of Buddha, Socrates, or Einstein. This one is even so true that there is a corollary: "When the master is ready the student will appear."
Some days I accidentally "teach" something to a kid. For instance, I once improperly used the term "centrifugal force" (when I actually should have use "centripetal force") while a child was experimenting with a hamster wheel and the kid, months later, was still misusing my term while performing his experiments, even as I repeatedly tried to correct him. But most days I teach nothing at all except, perhaps, what I convey to my students by role modeling. I've tried, believe me, to convey specific information to kids, like when I tell them that dirt is primarily made from volcanos, dead stuff, and worm poop, but most of the time the only things that stick are the things about which the kids are already asking questions.
And still, despite my utter lack of "teaching," the kids who come to our school are learning. How do I know? I watch them. I listen to them. I remember when they didn't know and then I hear them saying and see them doing things that demonstrate that now they do. And even though I'm not teaching them, they mostly learn exactly what I want them to know.
What do I want them to know?
The joy of playing with other people.
The frustration and redemption of failure.
Emotions come and go and they are important.
I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you.
Our agreements are sacred.
It's not only important to love, but also to say it.
It's not my job to "teach" these things. It is my job to love them and to do what I can to create an environment that is stimulating, beautiful, and safe enough: a place where children can ask and answer their own questions about the world and the people they find there. A place not of teaching, but of curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. We call it play and it's how we learn everything a preschooler needs to know.
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